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Historical Perspectives

An Intelligence Perspective
North Korea’s Nuclear Program: The Early Days, 1984–2002

Torrey Froscher

The North Korean nuclear program has been a major intelligence and policy challenge for more than 30 years. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry described the problem as “perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.” Donald Gregg, who was CIA station chief in Seoul as well as US ambassador to South Korea, called North Korea the “longest running intelligence failure in the history of American espionage.”

To be fair, Gregg was referring specifically to a lack of success in recruiting human sources—not necessarily errors in specific or overall assessments. Nonetheless, his comment underscores the difficulty of figuring out what North Korea is up to. In 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), which was convened to investigate the failed 2002 national intelligence estimate on Iraqi WMD capabilities, indicated that we know “disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries,” presumably including North Korea.

Today we know a lot more about North Korea’s nuclear program—but mostly it is what they want us to know. In this article a former analyst and manager discusses what US intelligence knew in the early days of the program and how policymakers reacted to the offered findings.


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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this journal are those of the authors. Nothing in any of the articles should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of their factual statements and interpretations. Articles by non-US government employees are copyrighted.


Posted: Feb 03, 2020 11:53 AM
Last Updated: Feb 03, 2020 11:53 AM